Sunday, April 22, 2012

Interpretation: "truth" and consequences / Tazria-Metzora

Among those who didn’t need to be attentive in physics class because they know how the universe really works:
  • Pat Robertson blamed the devastating tsunami that rocked Japan on homosexuals.
  • Numerous Christian clergy found it necessary to tell us that Hurricane Katrina was “God’s judgment” against an “evil city.” Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, pronounced Hurricane Katrina, ”God's punishment for President Bush's support of the August 2005 withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip.” Numerous Christian clergy in the United States agreed.
  • And it’s not just natural disasters: Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and considered a scholar of Islam, pronounced, “Throughout history, Allah has sent people to the Jews to punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was orchestrated by Adolf Hitler."
Do Pat Robertson, Ovadia Yosef, and Yusaf Al-Qaradawi have a pipeline to God? Do messages from God arrive in their inbox? Where does such an arrogant, self-righteous theology come from? It derives from the dark pits of their own souls, not from holy texts. All holy texts must be interpreted -- indeed there is no text that is not interpreted -- and interpretation means there are options. Every interpretation is a choice and those who promulgate them need to consider the ramifications of their interpretations, indeed every religious idea they put forth. The claim to unassailable and irrefutable "divine truth" -- closed to rational and ethical scrutiny -- is no longer morally acceptable. This week’s Torah portions provide a fine example.

We read the combined parshiot of Tazria and Metzora in Leviticus this week.

When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scale affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. (Leviticus 13:2)
This is the dreaded “leprosy" Torah portion. Please don’t dread it -- I’m hoping you won’t by the end of this drash. It’s worth mentioning that it’s not about leprosy at all. It’s about tzara’at, and that’s not the same thing. Tzara’at includes any of a number of skin conditions, visible and therefore easy to spot.

There are two Jewish paths of interpretation that we’ll examine here. The first is awful and the second is wonderful.

The first finds expression in tractate Arakhin (15, 16) of the Babylonian Talmud:
Rabbi Yossi Ben Zimra said: Whoever speaks gossip - tzara'at infections come upon him… Reish Lakish said [quoting Torah]: This shall be the ritual for a metzora [person afflicted with tzara’at] - this shall be the ritual for the motzi shem ra (gossiper).
The Rabbis here make a connection between the metzora (the afflicted person) and motzi shem ra (one who gossips) -- purely because they sound similar. In other words, tzara’at is a punishment for engaging in gossip, a variation of “you’re being punished for your sins.” The mysterious tzara’at -- which has no discernable cause, and comes and goes in an equally mysterious fashion -- is taken to be a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady.
This idea is expressed elsewhere. On the communal level, Deuteronomy is filled with this theology: God punishes the people if they violate the Covenant, and rewards them if they adhere to it. On the individual level, Job’s friend Eliphaz the Temanite, witnessing Job’s suffering and knowing all the disasters that befell him, says, Think now, what innocent man ever perished? Where have the upright been destroyed? As I have seen, those who plow evil and sow mischief reap them (Job 4:7-8).

As important as it is to condemn gossip, this is an unfortunate way to do it because it also condemns every person who suffers as a sinner punished by the hand of God. It is a cruel and judgmental theology. It is human concerns about “fairness” and punishment projected onto God.

A second and far more honest and compassionate option, derives from Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5 (46a). The context for this mishnah is important: the discussion concerns how to deal with the executed body of a criminal. Here’s someone whose moral behavior actually did bring on his suffering. Rabbi Meir, reflecting on this human suffering and degradation, tells us,
When a person is in pain, what does the Shechinah [God’s divine presence] say? “It is My own head that aches; it is My own arm that hurts." If God is grieved over the blood of the wicked that is shed, how much more so over the blood of the righteous.” (Sanhedrin 46a)
Rabbi Meir is saying that God is not responsible for human suffering. In fact, God suffers right along with us.

This is how I understand the discussion of the metzora. Human suffering requires a human response. What should that be? For an answer, we turn back to our parashah and two find two pearls of wisdom.

The first pearl: Torah does not recognize a sharp line between what is religious and what is medical; they are intertwined and inform one another. Modern science has come to realize this truth: mind and body are not separate entities at all.

The second pearl: Torah describes in detail how a priest comes to investigate a report of tzara’at. If the person is found to have tzar’at, he or she is isolated from the community for seven days (no doubt out of fear it is contagious). After seven days, a priest makes another examination. Throughout the person’s ordeal, a priest comes to him regularly. The priest, who is the most esteemed and authoritative person in the community, ministers personally to the sufferer. The priest’s presence may well have been healing. Presence is a powerful healer. With Rabbi Meir’s radical insight into God’s experience of human suffering, consider this: Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (Nefesh Ha-Hayyim 2:11) said that healing happens when we realized that God suffers with us. It is not only the priest who visits the afflicted; God is there too.

God does not cause suffering. God is not in the suffering. God is in the healing. God is in the power invested in each of us to mitigate the suffering of another.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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